Westmont College sophomore Madison Garcia was a sixth-grader at nature camp when she first realized she had a stuttering problem.
The kids were standing in a circle, playing a game in which they had to utter their names, one at a time, as quickly as possible. When a timer-toting counselor got to Madison, she opened her mouth, issued an “mmm” sound, and froze; for some reason, she couldn’t get past that first letter.
“That probably went on for a good 10 seconds,” said the 19-year-old Alhambra native.
That mortifying moment changed her life, triggering an ever-present level of anxiety that has never entirely dissipated. Since then, she’s learned not only to live with it, but to thrive.
Miss Garcia, a political science major, has single-handedly launched Santa Barbara’s new chapter of the National Stuttering Association. The support group’s first monthly meeting is tonight from 7 to 9 at the Carroll Observatory on the Westmont campus, 955 La Paz Road.
The support group is not just for Westmont students. In fact, none of the handful of confirmed members is from Westmont, and some are from UCSB and City College.
Roughly 1 percent of the nation’s population stutters; about four in five stutterers are boys.
For some reason, many who stutter, like Miss Garcia, have particular trouble with their names.
A couple of years ago, Miss Garcia called 911 to report some suspicious men lingering near her parents’ house in Alhambra. When the dispatcher asked her name, she froze.
“It was one of the longest blocks I’ve had,” she said. “(The dispatcher) said, ‘Are you still there?’ ”
Stuttering is different than stumbling over words, Miss Garcia said. Stumbling, she said, happens to almost all people when they try to talk fast and stammer over a word while getting their point across.
But “when I stutter, I’m unable physically to make the proper sound and form the words,” she said.
An unusually articulate speaker, the social Miss Garcia doesn’t stumble on words much — her sentences are long and flowing. But when saying her first name over the phone, she does draw out the first syllable for a couple of seconds.
One of the main objectives of the National Stuttering Association is to provide a refuge where stuttering is the norm, if only for two hours a month.
“Our logo is ‘You’re not alone,’ ” said National Stuttering Association Executive Director Elaine Saitta, talking by phone from her office in Seattle. “It’s important to be able to say, ‘I went through the drive-through for the first time, and I ordered what I wanted.’ People in the room get it, and they’ll be really excited for you.”
Like Miss Garcia, Ms. Saitta, 43, regularly gets tripped up on her name, especially over the phone.
She theorizes this may be because a person’s name is the one thing that should never get stuck on the tip of the tongue. As a result, any hesitation is bound to prompt a surprised reaction from other people, which intensifies the pressure.
She stresses that there is no shortage of successful stutterers, citing several celebrities. Among them is James Earl Jones, owner of the sonorous voice behind the menacing mask of Darth Vader. Others include actor Bruce Willis, ABC news reporter John Stossel and writer John Updike.
In general, the association advises candor over searching for a cure. For instance, Miss Garcia now knows to simply address the elephant in the room more often. When meeting new people, and getting stuck on her name, she explains that she stutters — something she considered unthinkable before she started meeting with a speech therapist two years ago.
“It’s like coming out,” she said. “It puts people at ease.”
She also has advice for people on the listening end of an awkward stutter storm: Maintain eye contact and listen intently.
“I think the biggest problem people (who stutter) have is feeling as if they are not heard,” she said.